“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you… Do not fear for I am with you” (Isa. 43).
All of us here this morning differ in so many obvious ways. We are different ages and races. We speak dozens of languages and come from hundreds of places. We are messy and neat, rich and poor, exhausted and alert, trying to fit in or hoping to stand out. We have different dreams, desires and beliefs.
But below the surface we share in common something profound. We all are seeking what is real. We hunger for it. You know what I mean. We encounter some much superficiality, so many half-truths and lies. And so we understand what it feels like to come across someone who really gets us. We appreciate someone who can be true.
Peter Haynes was my priest in college. He is one of the most real people I know. He chooses words cautiously. He respects me enough to care more about being honest than whether or not I feel comfortable. He doesn’t hesitate to correct me. When I became dean of the Cathedral he drove six hours from Orange County just to shake my hand after the service. Then he drove six hours back home. He said the look on my face made it all worth it.
Although he once was the physically strongest priest in the Diocese he is frail and weak now. Yesterday I asked him what baptism means. He said that we are body, mind and soul. He pointed out that bodies and minds get a lot of attention in our society. But the challenge of our time is the world of the spirit.
For instance, fear drives us in irrational ways. I’m not just talking about the border wall. You can see this everywhere. We simply don’t feel right. In one of the richest societies in human history we feel impoverished, hounded by scarcity. We face an epidemic of despair. We see it in various addictions, rising levels of depression, isolation and loneliness. It lies behind our rising suicide rates and broken politics.
Peter Haynes says that baptism is the beginning of a spiritual life. It is how we start to tend our spiritual nature, how we receive the Spirit. The Bible is a library of different books written by different authors for different times and places. But the idea of a beloved child is a recurring theme. Think of all those joyful announcements about long awaited children being born.
Isaiah gives us a love letter from God. Shut your eyes and really try to hear this. “[T]hus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob he formed you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned… Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…” (Isa. 43).
God calls Jesus his “beloved Son” and through him we become God’s children too. We are spiritually healthy when God’s love for us is most real. Through baptism with water and the Holy Spirit we encounter this reality. The bread and wine we share every week remind us that God loves us too much to leave us on our own.
Today I offer three very simple observations from the story of Jesus’ baptism about spiritual healing and strength.
Chaff. With so much fear all around it is sometimes hard not to read the Bible in a fearful way. Luke uses a metaphor that we find confusing. He reports a short speech by John in which he talks about a “winnowing fork” and clearing the “threshing floor,” gathering the wheat into the granary and burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3). The Greek word for unquenchable is asbesto, the root of our word asbestos.
I want to be very clear. This metaphor is not about good people going to heaven and bad ones being burned in hell. It is about repentance or more precisely it is about the primary spiritual task called metanoia. That’s the Greek word we translate as repentance. It means to transform your life and soul.
At harvest each grain of wheat has a husk. The goal is not to separate good wheat from bad wheat but to save every grain. This is not a metaphor of separation and judgment. It is a metaphor of preservation and purification. The grain and the husks are thrown together into the air and the wind disperses the lighter husks.
There are large parts of ourselves that we will have to let go of in order to be happy, and for that matter to be part of God’s Kingdom. It is as if we were carrying a huge backpack that extended high over our heads and around our sides. As we approach a narrow gate we realize that not everything we carry will fit through.
Envy, anxiety, gossip, insecurity, prejudice, greed, our sense of superiority, narcissism, a spirit of revenge, along with so much else these have to go. The spirit helps to sift through our lives to make us more perfect. In his book The Great Divorce C.S. Lewis writes about this process of letting go of what is false. He says, “heaven is reality.”
Humility. The second thing I want to point out about the reading involves two seemingly inconsequential words. The preacher Fred Craddock says these may be the most important words in the Bible. They are “Jesus also.” The passage goes like this. After John’s speech about the chaff, “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also was baptized and was praying… the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form” (Lk. 3). “Jesus also.”
The writers of the Bible all agree that baptism is for repentance or metanoia. It exists to transform our souls. Although Jesus does not need repentance, although God does not need to change anything about himself, God comes among us in this startling way. If God can join humanity in this ritual of renewal, we too can live humbly. We need to reject all forms of arrogance and not put ourselves above others. Christians should always be seeking forgiveness, focusing on what we need to change about ourselves rather than on how others could be better.
Prayer. The last simple thing you might have noticed in the Gospel has to do with prayer. The people have been baptized. Jesus himself has been baptized. Then Jesus prays and the Holy Spirit comes to him. And God’s voice announces, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Lk. 3).
Our bodies require nutrition and exercise. Our minds need ideas, language and connections to other people. Prayer is the most important action for our spiritual life. We must have both what we call common prayer, that is prayer with other people in church, and individual prayer. In the New York Times this week Farhad Manjoo wrote an article called “You should Meditate Every Day.” It is about how meditation has completely improved his life. It can help you too.
Prayer is the way we overcome the destructive fantasies we constantly generate and come to know something greater. It is the way we stop being a stranger to our self. It needs to be part of every day. We should set aside regular times for prayer and pray spontaneously too. As parents we should spend over ten years reading every night to our children. After you read tell your children what you are praying for and ask what they would like to pray for. Then say the Lord’s Prayer together. Pray at meals. Pray in the morning when you wake up, as you travel and as you prepare to sleep.
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth writes, “And faith as the work of the Holy Spirit is not a magical transformation. It is not a higher endowment with divine powers. It is simply that we acquire what we so much need… a teacher of truth within ourselves.” That teacher is Christ. This is the way we realize that because we are God’s children we have nothing to fear.
I vividly remember the day when I became a parent. I was standing at the hospital window, watching commuters on their way home as the sun was setting after a long summer day. I remember the light. It felt like such a contrast. The drivers were engaged in such an ordinary activity while for me the world seemed miraculous and utterly transformed. In that moment I knew everything had changed. I came closer to reality and to God.
We long for what is real. We won’t be satisfied by anything else. So cultivate your spiritual life. Purify yourself of the anxiety, fear and selfishness that diminishes you. Be humble and don’t regard yourself as better than anyone else. Persist in prayer so that Christ might shine more completely in your life. Never forget that you are “precious in [God’s] sight, and honored” and God loves you.
 It might even be bad news but we want to know the truth.
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (NY: Macmillan, 1946) 69.
 This particular example and much else in this sermon is inspired by Matt and Liz Boulton, “Jesus Also: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two,” 7 January 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/1/7/jesus-also-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-two.
 Farhad Manjoo, “You Should Meditate Every Day,” The New York Times, 9 January 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/opinion/meditation-internet.html
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. T. Thomson, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 242.
“There ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising” (Mt. 2).
Nothing stays the same. No matter who you are, life is a pilgrimage. In body or spirit we either adapt to change or we die.
Last night at dinner Sarah Kay the poet and our former Artist in Residence told me about a college party at Brown University called Sex Power God. In short it is famous for having students dancing around in their underwear. The year before she arrived there the Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly sent an undercover reporter to video the event. Sarah described in detail how friends suddenly saw themselves half naked on television and worried about whether this would affect their careers.[i]
For years she forgot about the whole thing. Then last summer Sarah met a new friend who we will call Janet. They instantly recognized each other as soul mate. Janet is a filmmaker and a woman of color. When Sarah told her that she had gone to Brown, her friend said, “Oh” in the way people usually do when they had applied and not been accepted.
Janet explained that she loved Brown. The college had heavily recruited her in high school. Each week during the track season, Brown had called her coach to find out her times. In fact, Janet was not just accepted as an undergraduate but also into a special program that guaranteed her admission to medical school. It all seemed settled.
Then one day she came home as her father was turning off the television. He had been watching the Bill O’Reilly show. He had seen the episode about the party and told her that she was not allowed to go to Brown. Sarah feels convinced that the two would have been close friends in college and couldn’t help but wonder how this event changed the course of Janet’s life.
Change lies at the heart of all things. We are always accepting invitations or turning them down, embracing new possibilities or trying to shelter ourselves from change. During the Season of Epiphany we look for the light. We also listen for how God calls us out of our old habits and into a new relationship of love and gratitude with the world. We recognize that what we do and how we live matters for people who we haven’t even met.
In our Lessons and Carols service tonight we have three stories about invitation and persistence. The Magi leave everything behind to follow a star. At first they meet an insecure tyrant whose fear leads him to kill children. They persist in seeking. Ultimately they are, “overwhelmed with joy” when they encounter the baby Jesus (Mt. 2).
In the wilderness John thought that he understood what it would be like when the Messiah came. But he had to change. He had to accept the idea that he would baptize the Messiah. And when he did he saw, “the Spirit of God descending like a dove” (Mt. 3).
Finally at first Jesus himself seemed to imagine that his first miracle would involve a more weighty matter than providing wine for a wedding party. But his mother invited him to help and something moved him to begin his public ministry at that party.
Maybe you will be at a party when God calls you. Perhaps you will be at a track meet or in a newsroom or sitting watching television or in the wilderness or at Grace Cathedral.
Nothing stays the same. No matter who you are, life is a pilgrimage. In body or spirit we either adapt to change or we die. Listen for God. Persist in your calling. Do not be afraid to change your plans. Allow Jesus to transform the ordinary water of your life into something more. Let the star of God’s grace guide you.
[i] Meryl Rothstein, “Fox News airs footage of Sex Power God,” The Brown Daily Herald, 15 November 2005. http://www.browndailyherald.com/2005/11/15/fox-news-airs-footage-of-sex-power-god/
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
What truth will be born in you this Christmas night? I remember one moment of truth so vividly. I had gone back to my hometown to play in one of my college rugby games. Afterwards with two female friends I drove out to an almond ranch in the Vaca foothills where I had worked during the summer.
We went to the highest point on the property and leaned against the hood of my green Dodge Dart. The white clouds of springtime raced across the Great Valley. The grasses looked like long flowing hair being twirled in impossibility beautiful patterns. The warmth of the sun, the smell of the earth, the vivid blue skies, the brisk wind – that was pretty much it.
No film could capture the feeling. The world seemed perfect, every moment so beautiful and fleeting. We felt a longing that comes from a place so deep in us that no words can convey it. The joy, an overwhelming sense of gratitude for just existing, seemed tangible. We felt completely alive.
Elaine Shen was there. She and I had gone to middle school, high school and college together. I did not appreciate it enough at the time but she was a true friend. She came to all my games. As editor she filled the yearbook with pictures of me. From birth Elaine had a severely bent spine and when I was out of the country during the summer before our junior year of college she died on the operating table.
I never had the chance to say goodbye, or thank you. That sense of loss is part of my memory of that transcendent day. The joy and the sadness are all mixed together in that remembrance of feeling so alive.
For me the truth of Christmas and for that matter Christianity is like this. We plainly see the horrible things that happen to ordinary people. And yet at the same time, often unnoticed by us, there lies an inexplicable longing that seems to be just on the verge of being fulfilled, a desire for the transcendent.
Every year Grace Cathedral chooses a theme. Our 2018 theme was truth. All year people would say to me, “Since it is the year of truth, I need to tell you something.” “Your haircut is terrible, the sound system is too loud, your sermons are too long, and your pants don’t fit correctly.” I appreciated a lot of feedback this year.
At every single service we prayed to learn the truth about ourselves, the truth of other people, the truth about the world and the truth about God. The prayer worked. This year I found myself using more precise speech, exaggerating less. In order to be more truthful I simply spoke fewer words. Instead I listened more and cultivated a reverence for the facts. I tried to get beyond my ideas of God and let God be God in God’s own way.
We learned the truth at lectures and programs. A hydrologist said that the greatest danger to the environment is not global climate change, population growth, pesticides, plastics, soil degradation or species extinction. He said it is misinformation. It’s up to us to correct errors of fact regarding the environment.
Robert Sapolsky the primatologist and neuroscientist from Stanford said that anthropologists believe that two thirds of all conversation is gossip. He said that racism is deeply embedded in us, that we all respond to race subconsciously in less than a tenth of a second. This year we talked about white fragility, why white people have such a hard time talking about race. The nutrition scientist Marion Nestle taught us that industry funding of research means that we don’t understand what foods are healthy.
All year I have looked forward to this chance to talk about the truth at Christmas. I really only have two points to make. The first has to do with the nature of faith and the second is about Jesus.
The novelist Alan Lightman writes, “I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world.” One night he was returning by himself from his island summer home in Maine to shore. He turned off the engine and just drifted. Lying in the boat looking up at the sky full of stars, it seemed like he was falling into infinity. He felt connected to all of nature as if he were merging into something larger than himself.
This mystical experience of what he calls “the Absolute” created an inner conflict for him. On the one hand he felt firmly convinced of the intellectual integrity of what he calls “the Relative” that is his belief that the universe is made of “material and nothing more.” But on the other hand he continued to feel drawn by this experience of transcendence.
This evening I am here to tell you that there is no “purely scientific view of the world.” Science will not tell you who to marry, what to devote your life to or for that matter what color pants you should wear. We are creatures from different cultures with varying tastes, who desire and dream, and love fiercely. There are so many different ways of experiencing the world. We ourselves are not so much facts but a mixture of events and interpretation.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith but part of it. You can be, in fact you probably should be, both a scientific and a religious person. Faith is the experience of being drawn into wonder in the face of mysteries that never will be fully resolved. Following the way of Jesus is not a matter of trying to believe something that is unbelievable. It is more like receiving a gift that is constantly being offered to us. We do not experience the world as it is but only through symbols and stories.
Facts always must be respected. But we hold these facts together with stories. Lawyers have stories about due process and the rational person. Economists tell stories about competition and scarce resources. Journalists talk about objectivity and fairness. For that matter scientists tell stories about universal physical laws.
The author C.S. Lewis distinguished between what he called the imaginary and the imaginative. The imaginary is, “something that has been falsely imagined with no counterpart in reality.” The imaginative on the other hand, “is something produced by the human mind to respond to something greater than itself.”
This is the world of faith. It receives and reaches out to the unknown. Gary Wills writes, “We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves. We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us.” To use words from Alan Jones, “God is a great incomprehensible presence within each of us. We are not what we think we are. We are both more and less: more, because we are deeper and lovelier than we know; less, because we often inflate ourselves by power, money, or arrogance to compensate for our feared insignificance.”
My second point concerns Jesus’ birth. If it were not so familiar the story would sound terrifying to us. Far from home Mary and Joseph have nowhere to stay. They give birth in a makeshift shelter for animals. When out of a fit of jealous rage a tyrant on the throne begins killing all the babies in the region, they escape into Egypt. Jesus is a refugee. He is on the other side of the border wall. When the American government separated children from their parents last spring, families like his suffered.
Our world of government shutdowns, foreign manipulation, propaganda, betrayals of allies, secret payoffs, prison sentences and narcissistic authoritarian leaders is not so different from the world of Jesus. The remarkable thing about this story is that God chooses to be present in the places where human beings are most desperate.
And yet when you read the story (especially in Greek) what stands out is not the terror, insecurity and suffering but rather the superlatives, the great glory that shines around them, the good news of great joy. The shepherds praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Lk. 2). And Mary treasures all these words and ponders them, or a better translation might be that, she “interprets” them “in her heart.”
For two thousand years humanity has been interpreting this sign. The poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was the daughter of an Anglican priest. She wrote a poem called “On the Mystery of the Incarnation.” “It’s when we face for a moment / the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know / the taint in our own selves, that awe / cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart… / to this creature vainly sure it and no other creature is god-like, God entrusts… as guest, as brother, / the Word.”
Bishop Rowan Williams writes, “We are such bad creatures at loving that we need the shock of joy… to set our love free.” The philosopher Iris Murdoch calls this, “the extremely difficult realization that something other than ourselves is real.”
At the time I thought that day out on the almond ranch was absolutely singular, that nothing like it would ever happen again. But I was so wrong. The joy and truth of Christmas is that we can never be sure where God will find us. There is no purely scientific view, only a longing that is deeper than our fears and worries. God draws us home through our desire.
On this holy night I do not know in what way joy and sadness are mixed together for you. We are not what we think we are. We are falling into the infinite, drawn into wonder, responding to something greater than ourselves. So stop worrying about believing the unbelievable and receive the gift that Jesus offers. Christ will make us stronger, braver, kinder, and gentler.
What truth do you want to become? What truth will be born in you this Christmas night?
 Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 503, 85.
 That despite the overwhelming numbers of white people in power, talking about race can be so upsetting to white people that they simply cannot see the severity of this problem or do anything about it.
 Marion Nestle, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat (NY: Basic Books, 2018).
 Alan Lightman, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (NY: Pantheon Books, 2018) 6-15.
 Alan Jones, Living the Truth (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000) 131.
 Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2013) 263.
 A large part of religion involves an exploration into the mystery of God and the world, and the mystery we are to our selves. Alan Jones, Living the Truth (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000) 134.
 Alan Jones, Living the Truth (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000) 25.
 Denise Levertov, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation.” “It’s when we face for a moment / the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know / the taint in our own selves, that awe / cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart: not to a flower, not to a dolphin, / to no innocent form / but to this creature vainly sure it and no other creature is god-like, God / (out of compassion for our ugly / failure to evolve) entrusts, / as guest, as brother, / the Word.” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/on-the-mystery-of-the-incarnation/
 Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995) 24.
 Alan Jones, Living the Truth (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000) 11.
‘Rejoice! … Do not fear! … God will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing!’ Today is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday – Gaudete being the Latin word for rejoice. We aren’t yet at the moment of birth, but we are in sight of it. Something exciting and good is just around the corner, only a little more patience – only a few more sleeps – and we will be there. Something wonderful is hovering just out of reach, beckoning us forward in delight and celebration.
Sometimes I think that, like John the Baptist, I may have missed the memo about this. There he is calling us all a brood of vipers and here I am worrying about all there is left to do before Christmas hits. Presents to wrap, food to buy, services to lead, worlds to change, repentance to find – it’s a lot. Paul in his letter to the Philippians echoes Zephaniah’s call to rejoice, telling us not to worry about anything because God is near. But John the Baptist and I are busily doing the opposite and worrying about everything we can!
I wonder whether you more naturally find yourself on team Zephaniah or team John the Baptist? Whether you find it easier to picture God as one who is on our side, picture God, as one person beautifully said to me this week, as the one who has our back? Or whether your image of God is more judgey, more inclined to tell us where we’re going wrong than to exult over us with loud singing?
It’s taken me a while to get from a judgey God to a rejoicing God and I’m going to share with you one of the moments that made that transition possible. It was quite a while ago now, a few years after I was ordained when I was working as a college chaplain in Cambridge University. I was given a spiritual exercise to do by my spiritual director. It was a very simple one. Picture yourself sitting somewhere you feel safe and relaxed. As you sit there picture Jesus coming to be with you. What does he say to you? What do you say to him?
Now I didn’t feel I was doing a great job as a chaplain – or as a priest or as a human being. So I was nervous about what this exercise would reveal. I expected Jesus to come to me, to look at me with loving but disappointed eyes. To say something like, Ellen, Of course I love you, but it’s time to pull your socks up and make a better job of your life. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead Jesus came to me with eyes full of love, nothing else – not a shade of disappointment or judgement. Instead of speaking he reached out his hand and took mine and we danced together. And as we danced he reached out his other hand and it wasn’t just us dancing it was everyone, all of us dancing with God.
‘Rejoice! … Do not fear! … God will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing!’
That spiritual experience made me fall in love with God all over again. Of course it didn’t mean that I stopped worrying or seeing what is wrong in the world. In fact it gave me more energy to work for change. If we start not from a point of fear, of a sense of inadequacy and failure, but from a point of hope, of a sense of love and validation there is so much more we can do!
There is a prayer poem by Michael Leunig that Alan Jones and I both share as one of our go to pieces of theology. It’s this one:
There are only two feelings. Love and fear.
There are only two languages. Love and fear.
There are only two activities. Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results. Love and fear.
Love and fear.
Everything in God, everything in Advent, is calling us to the first of these – to love rather than to fear. Advent is calling to us that God loves us so much that at Christmas she’s coming to make her home with us, and that at the end of all things she’s coming to take us home with her. God delights in you. God wants to be with you. God stretches out a hand to hold yours and whirl you into the dance of love.
This is a deep and gentle truth that is stronger than the strident voices telling us how undeserving of love we are. Sometimes these voices are loudest at Christmas when we spend time with family who may not love us as they should. Are voices at your family table trying to tell you that you are not good enough? Refuse to let them drown out the quiet voice of God whispering again and again ‘I rejoice over you’.
And let’s not leave John the Baptist out of the party. If you get beyond the brood of vipers language to what he actually advises people to do there is a real gentleness there too. He doesn’t ask people to uproot their lives or give up their professions, he simply invites them to act in just and gentle ways within the paths they are already walking. Tax-gatherers are to be honest, soldiers to be just and careful. All he says is that we are to live considerate lives in which the needs of others are given equal weight with our own. To let love rather than fear direct our actions.
Imagine if that is how we lived as a nation. It would be inconceivable that we would allow a 7 year old refugee child to die of dehydration and exhaustion when in our care. We would not be governed by our fear of the other but by our love for them. We would take the risk of holding our arms open to the weary and the victimized and we would rejoice with them as God rejoices with us. We would see in them the God who was born of poor parents in a sketchy barn in an occupied country and became a refugee child himself.
And in the midst of all the ways we fall short God still offers to renew us with his love. God still rejoices in us. Sometimes I’m not sure why but that’s God for you – profligate with his love and delighted to share it with us even when we’re going wrong. So I’m going to close with a favourite poem that speaks to that moment when we truly know that God loves us without condition and rejoices over us. That moment when we truly know that God exults over us with loud singing. It’s Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sassoon:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
“To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (John 1).
You can’t help but sympathize with the title character in the musical Dear Evan Hanson. Evan is so socially awkward. He has enormous difficulty making friends. Evan’s therapist requires him to write an encouraging letter to himself every day. One day at school he is printing out one of these letters to himself when the school bully snatches the paper and puts it in his pocket.
It seems like a total disaster. But then in a bizarre turn of events the bully takes his own life. When the parents find Evan’s letter in their son’s pocket, they assume that the two boys had been friends and reach out to him.
This story concerns a new reality in our society. Today young people have two separate lives in a way that they never quite did before. Often what happens to them and how they look online matters just as much as real life. Parents who did not grow up with these technologies don’t know what to do. Young people are just as much at a loss. For that matter everyone is.
Technology has changed. This affects our jobs, elections, what we read, listen to and buy. It changes our identity, politics, international relations, our sense of satisfaction, who we choose as our friends and pretty much everything else.
Search and rescue experts use an expression to describe the early stages of being lost. They call it “bending the map.” At first a person may not even believe that they are lost. Reality doesn’t exactly match the map but they don’t really notice it yet. They make excuses for how a mountain or a lake on the map doesn’t match the actual landscape.
I think as a civilization we are bending the map when it comes to technology. We keep talking and acting as if we were in the old world even though so much has changed. We never seem to be honest about what is happening.
The Prologue to the Gospel of John addresses us. It says, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him… But to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God” (John 1).
Jesus is this light. In the simplest terms he knew God so intimately that he realized something that changed all history. Every person is a child of God. Every person has infinite dignity and value. No one like you has existed from the beginning of the world until now. This is bedrock truth, no matter how much technology changes.
At any moment of the day you will see people in this Cathedral. Some are tourists, others are Anglicans from distant places, some are our neighbors looking for quiet and beauty. Many come because they carry burdens. Our Cathedral chaplains and greeters meet them and care for them. They share the good news that nothing needs to stand between God and us.
Let me read the second part of a poem about Jerusalem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “Tourists.”
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
There is such a great power that comes from really seeing someone. It is true of Evan Hanson, the poet with the baskets and everyone in a world convulsed by technological change. Thank you for letting the light of Christ shine in your words and actions.
 John Edward Huth, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) 30=1.
Visits of condolence is all we get from them. They squat at the Holocaust Memorial, They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall And they laugh behind heavy curtains In their hotels. They have their pictures taken Together with our famous dead At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb And on Ammunition Hill. They weep over our sweet boys And lust after our tough girls And hang up their underwear To dry quickly In cool, blue bathrooms.
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine…” (Phil. 1).
Let this Advent be for listening. In the silence above the static hear the voice of God and repent. I offer you three short chapters on silence, static and wholeheartedness.
Silence. On a clear October night in 2003 Gordon Hempton awoke to a deep thumping noise. An auditory ecologist who makes his living by recording sounds ranging from the flutter of butterfly wings to coyote pups and waterfalls, he thought he was hearing a new class of supertanker offshore from his home on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It turned out that although Hempton’s consuming passion was listening to the world, he was losing his hearing.
Hempton’s life went into a nosedive. Suddenly he was cut off from what he loved most. He couldn’t work and fell into debt. But then after many months his hearing miraculously returned to normal. When it did he knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. He dedicated his life to protecting the natural soundscape or, more precisely, what he calls silence.
Hempton writes that, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything… Silence can be found and silence can find you.” We will never experience silence in the world if we cannot hear it within ourselves. There is a reason that we never evolved earlids and that the audio cortex never sleeps. A deep connection exists between silence and a creature’s feeling of safety. That is the reason wild animals do not linger long at a river whose sound masks the approach of predators.
Furthermore Hempton points out that just as species are rapidly going extinct, places of natural silence are too. A silence of longer than fifteen minutes has become incredibly rare in North America and is entirely gone in Europe. Mostly because of air traffic, there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the U.S. And so his dream is that by preserving silence around a single square inch in Olympic National Park a new respect for silence might be introduced into human life again.
I want to say one last thing about this. Hempton thinks of silence in two ways. First, there is what he calls inner silence. This is a feeling that we carry with us wherever we go. It is a kind of sacred silence that orients us and reminds us of the difference between right and wrong. Second, there is outer silence. This happens in a naturally quiet place that invites us to open our senses and to feel our connection to everything. Outer silence replenishes our inner silence. It fills us “with gratitude and patience.”
Static. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lk. 3). In the wilderness, in the presence of a silence we no longer experience, God speaks. My daughter teaches Sunday school here at Grace Cathedral. She says that prophets are people who come so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know what is most important. They know what to do. John the Baptist is a prophet of the silences.
This was the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Mitch McConnell was senate majority leader and Jerry Brown was governor of California, when Joel Osteen and Franklin Graham were high priests of American religion. To us these might seem to be the most important facts of our time. But for God this is just static.
This week I made a new friend. Nathan’s father was a Lutheran pastor who moved his family to Addis Ababa Ethiopia a few days after the communist Derg took power. Nathan remembers driving to school and seeing corpses along the side of the road with signs around their necks. Thousands of people were simply executed in the night.
These same communists were the ones who chose the man who became be the Ethiopian pope. As a result for years many people believed that the government and the church were irreparably compromised. This was also the situation in ancient Palestine and its whole chain of command from the Roman emperor to the local high priest who collaborated with his officials.
The situation seemed hopeless. Where was the word of God to go? To describe this Luke uses the Greek word egeneto. It is related to our words beget, gene, generate. As in those times, today the word comes into being, it is begotten, in the same places where it always has been, in the silences removed from the places of power.
Last week on the First Sunday of Advent we celebrated the beginning of a new church year. For the next twelve months we will be closely following the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Gospel of Luke. The word gospel means good news. These poetic and practical stories were meant to be read aloud. Their purpose is to provoke hearers to re-examine their lives, to repent and believe, and ultimately to change the world.
The gospel is a kind of story-telling technology for transforming the self. The problem is that we have such strong expectations for what these stories mean that we too easily miss the point. Furthermore, the words have gotten worn out in the retelling.
Everything we need to hear today is in one line. John “went into all the region about the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3). The word we translate as repentance is really metanoia it is a transformation of heart, mind and soul. The word for forgiveness is aphesis; it means to be released from captivity or slavery. The word sin is hamartia and means to miss the mark as an archer might miss the target.
This whole story is about how you can be released from what constrains, dehumanizes and destroys you and how you can help others to become free too. In the Book of Exodus the Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means literally the narrow place. Do you remember this summer when the Thai youth soccer team spent weeks trapped in a cave that was filling up with water? You can imagine how terrifying it would be to come to a narrow place and not know if you can make it through.
That is mitzrayim. For us the narrow place might be despair at our politics, fear of deportation, racism, homophobia, mental illness, addiction, job and housing insecurity or family conflict. Whatever might be holding you back right now, Jesus brings us the New Exodus, the real freedom to flourish in the way that God created us to.
Wholeheartedness. My last point is that seeing the world in terms of sin and repentance is a kind of technique for breaking the forces that hold us captive. Brené Brown is an Episcopalian and a university professor in Texas. She began her career by studying how people derive meaning from their relationships. The more she talked to people about connection and love the more she heard about alienation and heartbreak. This led to a huge breakthrough.
Brown defines shame as the fear of being disconnected from others. Every person experiences this. It is the voice inside us that says, “if they knew what I have done, they would never speak to me again,” or, “I don’t deserve to be loved,” “they prefer her to me.” The more we deny our shame or ignore it, the more powerful its hold on us. It leads us to view vulnerability as weakness and to hide who we really are.
When we hate our self it is hard not to constantly despise others. Shame isolates and brings out the worst in us. Just think of the most upsetting things you have seen on Twitter. This week in our discussion of the book White Fragility we talked about how white shame makes it difficult to have racial reconciliation in our country.
Brown contrasts shame and guilt. Shame is a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that says, “I am bad.” Guilt on the other hand means doing something bad. It leads us to say, “I made a mistake.” These are really two different ways of being. On the one hand there is blame, defensiveness and denial. On the other hand there is what Brown calls wholeheartedness. Although most people associate vulnerability with weakness, vulnerability is key to this way of living. It is how we love with our whole heart.
Fear of being ridiculed, dismissed or ignored does not stop wholehearted people like this from seeking connection to others. They take risks. They are not afraid to say, “I love you,” or, “I’m sorry,” or, “forgive me.” Wholehearted people embrace the idea that what makes them vulnerable or imperfect is also what makes them beautiful.
The language of Jesus enables us to live in this better, more silent place. Sin as missing the mark, repentance as the constant process of changing our hearts, and, forgiveness as release from captivity – these basic ideas help us to see ourselves as children of God. They give us the confidence of someone who believes that nothing can irrevocably alienate us from God.
This week at George H.W. Bush’s funeral Alan Simpson talked about his friend’s wholeheartedness. He said, “George… never hated anyone…. Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.” This week for homework I invite you to drain your container of hatred. Try forgiving someone – it could be someone in public life like the president, or the person who lives next door to you.
In the presence of everything, discover the Holy Spirit that penetrates the static. Let repentance be your path out of shame. Enter into a wholehearted life in Christ. Come close to God so that you will know what is most important, so that you will know what to do. Let this Advent be for listening. Let silence find you.
 Gordon Hempton with John Grossmann, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World (NY: Free Press, 2009) 2
 Robin DiAngelo White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).
 Alan Simpson, “Eulogy for George H.W. Bush,” National Cathedral, Wednesday 5 December 2018. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a25412509/alan-simpson-george-hw-bush-funeral-eulogy-transcript/